Allow me to introduce Dagger, one of several who runs the excellent football blog Post Game Heroes. Though I must confess that I do not read nearly as much excellent work being written around the internet by guys like Dagger, I do distinctly remember an excellent post he made early last season, when it became evident that our kickoff coverage units were susceptible to breakdowns. More specifically, Dagger had some simple but clever and accurate diagrams of Ricardo Colclough's failure to stay in his lane.
Anyway, he typically devotes time after each game on the play of the offensive line, so I thought I'd send him a few questions about our offensive line, now that the final 53 has been set. Note: The final question was sent to Dagger before the news of the Mahan trade, but alas, did not make its way back to me until shortly after the news broke. Nevertheless, thanks to Dagger for taking the time.
1) Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about your site and what you guys over at PostGame Heroes have been up to the past couple of years. I know that you are well versed in all things Pittsburgh Steelers, but your site is not limited to Steelers content exclusively. What else can readers expect to see at your site both during the offseason and during games?
PGH: PostGameHeroes.com is basically a group of close friends that decided that we wanted to add something new to the blogging game. There are a handful of us, and we all have different roles and specialties. We felt that there was a certain aspect of pre- and post-game coverage that was being neglected on the internet. We like to think we are somewhere in between the hardcore stats sites like footballousiders.com and traditional blogs and message boards that are more opinion based. We try to fill the void left by the traditional mainstream media/newspaper sites that (due to structural, time, and "space" issues) can't begin to tackle some of the things we get into when we start getting deep into our X's and O's Offensive Line Breakdowns, or Frame-by-Frame's features.
2) I mentioned it in my brief intro but I'll say it again: Dagger does great work when it comes to breaking down the play of the offensive line in a way that is both sophisticated yet accessible. So, can you give us your take on what you've seen out of Justin Hartwig this preseason and what we can expect from him in 2008? Are there any specifics you can provide as to why just a marginal improvement at the center position might have a domino effect on the play of the rest of the line, particularly the two guards?
PGH: Some numbers to chew on real quick…..In 2007, the Steelers were 28th in the NFL in rushing yards gained up the middle and 19th in the NFL in converting short-yardage runs. A Hall of Fame Center he isn't, but Justin Hartwig is going to do wonders for the Steelers offensive line. We have talked about it at length on our site here and here. I think Sean Mahan's lack of push in short-yardage situations, his inability to hold or spearhead the point of attack, his shortcomings in pass protection, and his issues dealing with big DT/NTs was the biggest problem on the line last year.
Insert Hartwig into the lineup and no longer will you see our starting center pushed into the backfield on every other snap. No longer will short-yardage and goalline play-calling be dictated by Mahan's inability to move the man in front of him. No longer will you see our two guards Kendall Simmons and Chris Kemoeatu helping the Center on almost every offensive play. Teams were keying on this last year and were blitzing up the middle like crazy….trying to exploit the fact that we often had 2 or 3 interior linemen tied up with one or two big, space eating DTs because Mahan couldn't do his job on his own. Hartwig solidifies the center of our line and his presence will have a domino effect on the other guys.
If Marvel Smith is healthy, I'll go out on a limb and say that you won't see a real noticeable difference between 2008 Kemoeatu and 2007 Faneca at LG, and Hartwig will hold down the middle of the line. The right side of our OL with Simmons and Colon will obviously be the big question mark all year long and might hold the key to our season.
3) Kendall Simmons. What happened a year ago in your estimation? Can he reclaim some of the old form that led the Rooneys and Kevin Colbert to open up their checkbooks just several short years ago?
PGH: In the weeks leading up to the 2002 draft, Kendall was proclaimed the #1 G in the entire draft. He got early playing time for the Steelers, looked good for the first few years, hasn't missed many games over his career outside of the 2004 season, but his performance has been noticeably slipping of late. With a 4 year $6 mil per year contract in his back pocket, Simmons isn't going anywhere, so get used to him as a mainstay at RG. Starting LG Chris Kemoeatu actually pushed Simmons to the sideline for 2 games in 2006 but Simmons quickly won his job back and hasn't given it up since then.
Personally, I think Simmons has been subpar for the last 2 years and the "camp battles" between him and Kemoeatu have been for show. Simmons' job was never on the line last year in camp, just like Willie Colon's job was never on the line at RT this offseason. It's a shame, because I think that the Steelers could possibly work out a few better OL combinations if they were to tinker with the line more during training camp. Mahan has all the tools necessary to be a decent Guard, but he's an awful Center. Why not let him get some work at RG? Willie Colon was drafted as a Guard and during the draft was said to have "the perfect Guard's body". Why not move Colon to RG and insert Starks into the lineup at RT? What about giving Essex a shot? I think I'm not the only one that gets frustrated watching guys that underperform continue to nail down starting spots without competition.
Having said that, Kendall Simmons will be your starting Guard all season long, so get used to it. With Sean Mahan now riding the pine, Simmons (it's between him and Colon) is the worst Lineman in the starting lineup. Remember, the Steelers gave up 53 sacks last year and by our count at PGH, he was responsible for anywhere between 10-12 of those sacks. That is an extremely high number for a guard, who is not facing edge rushers or "sackmasters" like a Left Tackle or Right Tackle is. He also struggled in "close-quarters-combat" against large DLinemen. Steeler Nation is stuck with him for the next few years, so hopefully he can find his game again or the right side of our line is going to get Roethlisberger killed.
4) You think there's any legs to the story that the team may be looking to deal one of their offensive lineman? The names that have come up are Essex and Mahan I believe. Can you tell us what kind of value offensive linemen of that caliber might get in return if there was a trade?
PGH: I don't see any moves coming but, the Steelers are believed to be looking to add another TE, young DL, or maybe even a veteran CB before they open up vs Houston week 1. In order for a move of any magnitude to take place they need to open up some cap space, and getting Starks/Mahan/Essex off the books would be a nice start. Having said that, nobody in their right mind is going to bite at Starks and his $7 million dollar contract. I actually think Starks is a solid Tackle, so if not for the contract albatross around his neck, there would be a decent market for him out there. Mahan and Essex would make decent depth acquisitions for another team and the going rate for non-starters these days on the OL is a 5th or 6th round draft choice. A few days ago, the Cowboys acquired a depth guard from Denver for a 5th, and last year, the Redskins acquired starting G Pete Kendall for a 4th. I don't see the Steelers making any trades, but I'm not against the idea.